Rating: Maybe M/15?
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, and am making no profit from their use.
Warnings: Disturbing concepts, including suicidal ideation, lobotomy, gory experimentation and emotional manipulation.
Spoilers: For all of seasons 1 and 2. Disregards Season 3.
Summary: John is an empath. Which isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds. Most of the time, it’s not even useful.
It was strange, going to Dartmoor after spending so long in London. His empathy meant that being in London was like looking out at the city from their living room window. Up close you could distinguish the street lamps and lit windows, just as he could distinguish the separate emotions of individuals, but soon they all blurred into one sea of light, into a roiling ocean of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, hope and fear and everything in between.
And Sherlock had called his mind ‘placid’? If only he knew.
In contrast, Dartmoor had long stretches of emptiness, and John’s head went quiet for the first time in a very long time. Not silent, of course – he could still feel the people in the villages, and his bonds with Sherlock and Harry were still there – but quiet. Like someone had turned down the volume. The people were there, but…distant. As though it was just him and Sherlock (and Harry, sort of), and no one else in the world.
But it couldn’t last, and they were at the village before John really had time to appreciate it. The couple who ran The Cross Keys were nice, but guilt lurked beneath their cheerful veneer like a ribbon of blood through water. John snagged a receipt for meat, just in case it had something to do with their case.
He and Sherlock wound up with a single bed between them, but John didn’t really mind; Sherlock probably wouldn’t be doing much sleeping anyway.
Though of course he objected when John put his case on the bed. “Why can’t you take the sofa? You’re shorter.”
“Of the two of us, I’m the one most likely to do some actual sleeping,” John shot back, putting his toothbrush in the bathroom.
“You don’t know that,” Sherlock grumbled.
“Well, if you happen to fancy some sleep, then we can share,” John pointed out. “It’s certainly big enough for the two of us. But if you hog the covers or kick me in the night, I’m dumping you on the floor.”
There was a strange ripple of emotions from Sherlock at that, something longing and sad and strangely hopeful. John only got a brief glimpse before Sherlock deliberately smothered it – probably forcing himself to think about the case – and while John could probably probe the bond to determine what that had been, he felt his friend deserved some kind of privacy. John couldn’t help knowing what he was feeling, but he could stop himself from poking his nose into subjects Sherlock obviously didn’t want to think about.
For the first time, John wondered if it was possible for an empathic bond to become too strong.
He’d been able to follow Sherlock through the moor even when they lost sight of each other – that was one way in which the bond helped enormously, though it was a bit like playing hot-cold; John never got a clear picture of where Sherlock was, only a vague feeling of the direction he was in.
John had stopped to write down what he thought was Morse Code, until he’d probed with his empathy, picked up on the lust and love howling out into the night and realised it was people having sex in a car. Of course a place like Dartmoor would have several ‘make-out points’ – he was surprised they hadn’t stumbled across one sooner.
Then he’d felt Sherlock’s fear, and almost dropped his notebook in his hurry to find him.
The fear had been so strong, strong enough to start bleeding over into John. Even when they were back in front of the fire at the pub and perfectly safe, John could feel it creeping along his spine like a cold sweat. He’d tried to nudge some feeling of security into Sherlock – carefully not touching him, because then they’d have two people panicking – but the fear bubbling over into him made him shaky, not quite sure of himself. In the end he had to take a walk just to calm himself down.
That had never happened before. He was aware of other people’s emotions, yes, and they could influence his own, but they never consumed him like that. Not even Harry’s. Maybe it had something to do with his bond with Sherlock?
It was times like these that made John wish that he wasn’t the only one, that there had been some older, more experienced empath for him to learn from. He had no idea why his bond with Sherlock would be stronger than the one he had with Harry. He had no idea why it seemed to be getting stronger with time. He had no idea about a lot of things, and he was getting a little sick of it.
He’d been born with this damn empathy – shouldn’t he know something about it by now?
Sherlock didn’t return to their room that night, but John hadn’t really been expecting him to. He was feeling it again from Sherlock – the painful love and yearning that meant he was thinking about Irene – so he’d probably be roaming around and brooding.
John tried to stay up that night, tried to keep himself attuned to the bond between him and Sherlock so he’d know if there was a problem…but that intense fear had left him very tired, and eventually he succumbed to sleep.
He opened his eyes when he heard the door to the room shut softly. Usually, that sound would have had him leaping off the bed and grabbing for his gun, but his empathy told him it was Sherlock who’d just entered the room, and John was so tired he couldn’t be bothered to move. He shut his eyes again, already beginning to doze.
In the morning, when he awoke to an empty room, he’d tell himself that the feeling of a hand stroking across his forehead – and the dull glow of love and longing that shuddered through the bond – had just been a dream.
It was actually possible to lie to John – he’d figured that one out fairly early. He was an empath, after all, not a telepath like in the sci-fi shows. He didn’t know what people were thinking, only what they were feeling, and certainly not why they were feeling it. Most of the time, he could take a guess, but that was all it was – a guess.
Still, his empathy helped him get a better read on people, and pushing fear onto someone was certainly useful when he was being threatened. The hardest part was controlling it, ensuring his own emotions and sense of self weren’t consumed by the empathic noise that surrounded him.
So when his empathy suddenly started battering at his senses in Baskerville, John knew right away something was wrong. It wasn’t like those times when he got distracted and let his empathy drift free – he didn’t feel weightless and barely aware of himself. If anything, he felt like he was aware of too much.
He was aware of Sherlock, yes – he was always aware of Sherlock – but suddenly he was aware of the people lingering on the outskirts of the facility, of their emotions bleeding into his and no matter how hard he focused, he couldn’t shut them out. It was like all his barriers between himself and the world around him crumbled, emotions shattering through his mind like a broken window letting in a hurricane, a storm of thoughts and feelings that rushed by him and swept him up in the flood.
It was too much, far too much. He couldn’t block it, couldn’t stem the tide, couldn’t pick out individual people anymore and could barely pick out individual emotions. He was happy, and worried, and sad and confused and happy and angry and scared/triumphant/smug/anxiousexcited grievingguiltylovingcontentfrustrated-
Then he was feeling nothing at all.
There were voices…somewhere. Above him, below him, to the side – John couldn’t tell, but they were there. Sherlock and someone else, someone unfamiliar.
“-kind of dosage?”
“I…don’t know.” Sherlock sounded embarrassed.
“You drugged him without knowing the dosage you were giving him? No wonder he had a reaction – for all we know, these are the typical symptoms of an overdose!”
“Why didn’t a helicopter come for him?”
“Because we have a jeep with the facilities of an ambulance and no time to waste waiting for other transport!”
“If that’s…” Sherlock seemed to realise John was awake. “John? John, are you alright? How are you feeling?”
But John’s brain apparently decided that if he was hearing and seeing, it was time for his empathy to wake up as well. Too wide, too loud, too bright, too…everything.
Emotions rose up to swallow him, and for a moment John could feel his brain trying to fight back, trying to hang on to what was him in the deluge of feelings and personalities that weren’t his own.
It felt like he was being ripped apart on a molecular level, like every cell in his body was being pulled in a different direction. The human brain just wasn’t built to process every emotion at once, not even John’s.
John had just enough time to wonder if he had any chance of coming out of this sane before the tide rose to engulf him, and he was gone.
The next time John woke up, it was to the familiar sounds and smells of a hospital. Heart monitor, check. The bustle of nurses and doctors tending patients that they could never quite muffle, check. The scent of disinfectant, check.
The utter exhaustion that showed him he’d been injured and was probably on a cocktail of drugs? Check.
John wanted to open his eyes and take advantage of what he suspected would be a small window of lucidity, but he didn’t risk it until he was certain his empathy was under control.
The doctor in the hall was flavoured with bitter worry and pinstriped self-doubt. Maybe she’d made a misdiagnosis, or one of her patients wasn’t responding to medication? The patient in the bed next to his was sapphire-happy with relief resounding over it like a trumpet blast. A successful surgery? The patient in the one over was asleep, drifting little soap bubbles of contentment and security over to John.
And Sherlock was exuding blood-tinged worry and pus-smelling guilt through the bond, which was telling him Sherlock was close.
John opened his eyes. The fluorescent lights were a little too bright, and he blinked several times before he felt it was safe to lift his head.
Sherlock was perched in a chair – literally perched, in that bird-of-prey-way he sometimes did. He was clearly aware John was awake; he’d gone tense and wide-eyed, but he wasn’t saying anything.
“What happened?” John asked. Or at least, tried to ask – it emerged as a hoarse, painful croak instead.
What was wrong with his throat?
“You were screaming,” Sherlock said quietly, obviously reading the question on John’s face.
John supposed that made sense. He hadn’t even been aware he was screaming, but then he hadn’t even been aware of his own mind, let alone his body. He took a deep, uncomfortable breath and fought the urge to just close his eyes and drift back into unconsciousness.
“You collapsed in the lab and started seizing,” Sherlock went on, in the voice of someone who was trying for calm but not quite managing it. “They transported you out of the base and admitted you to the hospital fourteen hours ago.”
Fourteen hours? That was…a very long time.
“Henry?” John rasped. Even that one word felt like an enormous effort.
“Recovering. You should have been there, John – it was brilliant! Murder weapon and scene of the crime all in one-”
John let himself tune out, giving in to the drugs and letting his body rest so he could heal…whatever had happened. He had time to wonder one thing, though; what had set his empathy off like that?
When John woke for the third time, his mind felt much more his own – he was probably off the more potent drugs, then – and Sherlock was still there.
“How long this time?” he coughed.
“You’ve been here for twenty-seven hours,” Sherlock muttered, leaning over him and peering into his face in a way that would have made John uncomfortable if it was coming from anyone else.
He’d got used to Sherlock’s bizarre scrutiny, but it was the steadily-leaking guilt – now bitter and fermenting like rusted water – that was confusing John.
“How’d I get here?” he asked, enjoying the way his words didn’t slur and his mind was clear.
Sherlock explained in his usual lightning-fast way about some kind of drug that Franklin (Franklin, really?) had been dosing Henry with. There was a gas that was triggered by pressure pads in Dewer’s Hollow.
“…and some of the gas was leaking in the laboratory,” Sherlock finished. “You started seizing.”
But the guilt hadn’t gone away, and Sherlock wasn’t looking John in the eyes anymore.
“The door was locked,” John said slowly, a horrible idea taking form in his mind. But surely there were some lines even Sherlock wouldn’t cross? Sherlock wouldn’t...
“I thought it was in the sugar,” Sherlock said quickly, shifting uncomfortably.
It was eerily similar to being shot. A moment of blinding pain, followed by numbness and spreading cold as blood poured out of him into the dirt.
Sherlock had tried to dose him with an unknown drug – thought he’d succeeded, in fact – and locked him in the lab to observe its effects.
Sherlock had experimented on him.
Sherlock had experimented on him.
And if Sherlock did that for a case he’d half-solved already, then what would he do if he found out John was an empath? Would he take it as permission to lock John up in a lab somewhere? Sherlock cared about him, yes, but clearly that caring didn’t outweigh his curiosity about the effects of a drug that induced crippling fear and hallucinations. So what would Sherlock do if he ever learned about John’s empathy?
John honestly didn’t know. He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to find out.
The lights were bright, too bright, and the distinctive smell of hospital disinfectant burned his nose. John pulled against the straps that held him down and swallowed hard, trying to repress his panic.
Panicking wouldn’t help him.
Even his head was strapped down tightly, so all he could do was slide his eyes to the side to try to take in something besides the painfully white ceiling.
Something in his chest jolted when he realised Sherlock was standing next to him, wearing surgical scrubs, gloves, and a mask.
“I’m coming, John.” Sherlock’s voice didn’t sound quite right – tinny and distorted, as though it was coming through a cheap electronic speaker.
Still, it was undoubtedly Sherlock, and John was just starting to feel reassured when Sherlock picked up a long, thin metal needle and a small hammer.
He reached out automatically with his empathy…but there was nothing. He kept reaching, scrabbling for the bond, feeling panic mount as Sherlock came closer.
“Sherlock, what are you doing?” And John wasn’t panicking, he wasn’t.
But then he most certainly was panicking, because Sherlock was bending over him, lining up the end of the needle with the corner of his eye, the precise spot where a sharp tap with the hammer would drive it through bone and flesh and into his brain. The exact procedure to perform a lobotomy.
“Don’t worry,” Sherlock said, raising the hammer, the needle just beginning to prick the tender blood vessels around John’s eye, no matter how much he tried to blink the pressure away. “Laboratory conditions, I promise.”
The hammer came down.
And John woke up with an unpleasant jolt, the corner of his eye still prickling and burning, half-expecting fluorescent lights and white tiles. But the room was dark, and John remembered being released from the hospital, remembered the advice Stapleton had given him from the little information they had on reactions to the drug, remembered the trip back to Baker Street as he’d leaned his head against the window and ignored Sherlock’s faltering attempts at conversation.
John sat up and rubbed at his eye, trying to focus on the dull wallpaper and pull his mind away from Harry’s emotions, just in case the headache was coming from her.
It wasn’t, but it could have been, judging by the nauseous-green anger and paper-brittle unhappiness that was radiating through her bond. John needed to remember to call her in the morning.
Sherlock was downstairs, practically bubbling with curdled misery and burnt self-righteousness, slathered with more of that sour-blue guilt.
John would have liked to think all that was about him, but who really knew? He had a direct insight into Sherlock’s emotions, and that wasn’t enough to tell him when Sherlock was about to experiment on him, so he certainly wasn’t capable of teasing out something as complex as that.
John turned over and shut his eyes, but then had to open them again just to remind himself that he was actually in his bed and not a laboratory. Which was ridiculous – he could feel the difference between his mattress and a steel table, thank you very much – but he needed to see it.
Logically, he knew it was just a nightmare – god knew, he’d had enough of them to last him a lifetime. He knew it was just the toxin working its way out of his system. He knew it was just his subconscious twisting half-formed and ridiculous fears so they seemed like real threats.
But John didn’t go to sleep for the rest of the night.
In the morning, John went down for toast automatically, even though he didn’t feel hungry.
“You don’t want toast,” Sherlock pointed out from the sofa.
“I don’t actually want much of anything,” John said, pleased his voice was much calmer than he actually felt. “But eating something, especially toast, can help toxins work out of my system. Well, burnt toast is best, but I’m not eating burnt toast.”
“Loss of appetite isn’t one of the symptoms,” Sherlock said, sounding almost peeved.
John nodded agreeably. “True, it’s not in the list Dr Stapleton gave me.” And that Sherlock had undoubtedly appropriated for his own perusal at some point. “But they’re dealing with a limited sample size and I had a very extreme reaction. They think it’s done its damage, but I’m under strict orders to call them if there’s any change in case it does end up killing me.”
Sherlock made a funny noise, and woodsmoke-fear suddenly made the bond hum.
“But you already knew that, didn’t you?” John sighed, forcing down the last bite he could manage and tossing the half-eaten meal in the rubbish. “You know my charts, and you’ve read the list Dr Stapleton gave you. Which means that you also know that being thrown into a seizure indicates that I’m responding very differently than any other subject studied. It could just be an overdose but that doesn’t seem likely, given the speed of my recovery.”
John should stop talking. He knew he should, but he couldn’t clamp down on the bitterness that wanted to spew forth like vomit. “Look, I’ll tell you if I feel the urge to commit suicide, but for now, I need to indulge my PTSD. Which means staying in my room for the day, convincing myself I’m properly defended and trying to sleep to make up for the night of horrendous nightmares.”
Of which Sherlock had often been the star, but John wasn’t quite cruel enough to mention that.
But he was cruel enough to abandon his pretence at nonchalance and go on the attack. “What did you think was going to happen, Sherlock? Because I’m honestly curious.”
Sherlock hissed like an angry cat. “I didn’t actually dose you-”
“But you intended to!” John snapped. “You know I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and you intended to feed me a drug designed to induce utter terror! What was your plan if I snapped on the spot and tried to kill myself? Or someone else? If I’d ended up in a mental institution, that would have been okay, would it? Or if you’d overdosed me and I went into cardiac arrest?”
“I made a mistake!” Sherlock shouted. “Is that what you want to hear? I made a mistake and I wasn’t thinking clearly!”
John had taken a deep breath to shout back when it suddenly faltered in his throat, the memory of his own mistake with Thomas rushing up to choke him. He still wanted to yell at Sherlock, but he no longer had the energy.
So he turned around and walked out of the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” Sherlock asked, sounding alarmed.
“Upstairs to my room,” John said wearily. “Weren’t you listening?”
He spent the rest of the day trying to read, watching the sunlight track across the wall and trying to convince himself he was safe.
The next day Sherlock was still smoke-buzzing nervous and thorn-prick guilty, tentative in the strange way he had that meant he’d clear his throat before speaking and wouldn’t slam cupboard doors just to get attention.
John made him a cup of tea, trying to return to some semblance of their usual routine. He wasn’t quite sure if this was an olive branch or just him being too weary to keep holding a grudge, but Sherlock certainly took it as a sign that his not-quite-apology was accepted. By the afternoon, he was back to bashing around the kitchen like a scientifically-inclined elephant.
But John didn’t think he’d ever entertain the idea of telling Sherlock about his empathy again.
John supposed it was almost inevitable, really. With all the cases Sherlock took, he was bound to stumble over some famous ones eventually. He already had, come to think of it.
But never anything quite so famous as the Reichenbach Falls painting, or so many in such quick succession. It was ominous, mainly because John knew how the media worked – one month’s darling was next month’s scapegoat, and John honestly didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to deal with that. Media attention tended to be poisonous.
On top of that, Sherlock was feeling sad almost all the time now, which was strange and very disheartening. The intensity ebbed and flowed – not like a tide, because tides were predictable, but more like…actually John didn’t have an appropriate simile there. Because nothing came close to describing the seemingly inexplicable surges in misery that gripped Sherlock day and night.
John couldn’t figure out the pattern to it. It had to be there, he knew – emotions didn’t come out of nowhere, Sherlock was responding to something, he just didn’t know what.
He seemed happier when he was with John, and John couldn’t deny that left him feeling a bit chuffed. But then he’d say or do something and Sherlock’s mood would deflate so suddenly it was actually rather frightening. Especially because there was no outward sign of it. Sherlock didn’t frown, didn’t get the dejected expression that usually meant there was nothing but boring cases on the horizon. He didn’t do anything – if it weren’t for his empathy, John would never know there was something wrong.
But he did know, and the fact that he couldn’t figure it out was driving him a bit mad. Sherlock would be sitting in the kitchen, trying to get rid of whatever toxic waste his latest experiment had produced at John’s shouted behest and then suddenly everything would go wrong.
They’d been arguing about…John actually couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said. The usual about hygiene and food preparation surfaces and Sherlock retaliating with his spiel that essentially boiled down to ‘it’s for science, so you should let me do anything I like’. (John had a lot less tolerance for that one after Baskerville.)
Sherlock hadn’t been shouting, but he had been pouting – the expression he used when he was feeling oppressed. “Your obsession with cleanliness and antibacterial soap is really quite unbecoming for a medical man – aren’t you supposed to be warning people about the dangers of superbugs? After all, you’re forever lecturing me about every other danger.”
“You’d miss me if I was gone,” John tossed back.
And just like that, Sherlock’s emotions spilled sorrow like red ink, splattering across the steady scrolling of his thoughts and tainting everything.
John could admit he tended to nudge Sherlock’s mood a little if it got too bad – when the storm clouds broke and bled rain-thick sorrow, lightning-sharp worry, thunder-crashing bitterness and a slow howl of loss – but it was a palliative, not a cure. The brief burst of lightness would be matched by an even more dramatic dip, and John didn’t feel comfortable meddling beyond that. Sherlock had a right to….whatever this was. Maybe something to do with Irene?
Gradually John sussed out that Sherlock seemed especially unhappy when John mentioned something about going away or missing something, but that didn’t make any sense. Did Sherlock have some kind of terminal illness?
“You do know you can tell me anything?” John hazarded as he passed Sherlock while Sherlock was doing…something with his laptop. “If you were in trouble, or something?”
He was watching Sherlock closely in his peripheral vision, which was the only reason he saw the way Sherlock looked utterly stricken. It was only for a moment, but it was there.
“You think I’m in trouble,” Sherlock stated, in the tone of voice that somehow made a statement into a scornful question of, ‘how could you be that stupid?’
“You’ve been sad lately,” John said quietly.
“Why do you think that?” Again, there was no hint of defensiveness, but John hadn’t really expected any – Sherlock was a better actor than that.
“I’m not like you Sherlock, I can’t list off all the things I’ve noticed,” John shrugged. “It’s just…something I know.”
“Just something you know?” Sherlock repeated, but his voice was softer now.
Physical contact was always a bit dicey – sometimes Sherlock seemed to need it, sometimes he’d practically flinch away – but John took a risk and put his hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock twitched like he wanted to lean into it and leap away at the same time, but both motions had equalised into a kind of spasm that didn’t actually move him anywhere.
When there was no other reaction John squeezed Sherlock’s shoulder and then drew back. Sherlock didn’t say anything, or do anything, and his expression didn’t change. His emotions were tense and roiling, sunburst-gratitude and wine-sharp bitterness and a low drumming of…regret?
John had no idea if he’d helped or not, but at least he’d tried.
John didn’t like going into the courtroom. The idea of seeing Jim Moriarty get his comeuppance was certainly an appealing one, even if Sherlock thought it was unlikely, but that ever-present emptiness – the emptiness he was now making no effort to disguise – was as sickening and gut-wrenching and wrong as ever.
Except Moriarty didn’t get his comeuppance. He didn’t even get convicted, which was…well, John couldn’t lie and say surprising, but it was certainly unsettling. Frightening, even. If Moriarty could do something that blatant, be caught in the act and still get away then what hope did they have of ever catching him?
Of course, that was assuming they were going to catch him. John should probably worry what it said about him that he was perfectly prepared to shoot Moriarty in cold blood, because that was exactly what he was half-planning to do. But he didn’t feel the slightest flicker of conscience about it, probably because what Mycroft had said about the battlefield was true – this was war, and in war, you shot to kill.
It didn’t help that Sherlock was frightened. A soft, creeping sort of fear that twisted at the edges of John’s senses like roots sneaking in beneath a door – thin but strong, smelling like earth and decay. It put John on edge, though in all honesty he couldn’t swear that he wouldn’t have punched the Chief Superintendent even without that constant, nails-on-chalkboard frustration.
Still, at least it was satisfying, even if it did end with him arrested and he and Sherlock on the run.
“Well, what stage of Moriarty’s plan is this?” John asked after Sherlock had picked the lock on that reporter’s flat.
Sherlock lunged forward like he wanted to turn the place upside down in search of…whatever he wanted to look for, but John stopped and set his weight as soon as they were through the door. The handcuff chewed into his wrist as Sherlock came up short against the restraint and actually came close to toppling over, flailing his long limbs and making a huffy, disgruntled noise like a cat that had just been stepped on.
John let himself enjoy it for a moment – it was rare to see Sherlock uncoordinated, and those moments were to be treasured – then took advantage of his imbalance to yank Sherlock down onto the couch as John sat down.
Sherlock was bristling, like he was offended somehow. “We need to-”
“I’m sitting down,” John interrupted, his voice calm and controlled. “I’ve got a headache.”
He’d tried to ensure the police hesitated to follow him by pushing as much fear onto them as he could, and it had been a long time since he’d tried to target a crowd. John wasn’t sure if that was the reason his head was pounding in time with his heartbeat – it could be adrenaline or fear or any number of things, really – but it was the reason he was using.
At least it was dark. John shut his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to centre himself. He tried to relax his hold on his empathy and just let himself float on the emotions that leaked from Sherlock and Harry and the people in the surrounding apartments – his own form of meditation.
It was broken when Sherlock spoke, the bond suddenly twitching with damp worry, “Did they hit you?”
“Did the police hit you?” Sherlock repeated.
“Why would they hit me?” John asked. “I mean, I didn’t exactly resist arrest.”
“You struck their lord and master, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the plebeians went in for a bit of police brutality before they brought you down. And you haven’t answered me – did they hit you?”
“No,” John sighed. “No one hit me. The headache’s from…something else.”
The back of Sherlock’s fingers were resting against John’s leg. John took his hand, because they were handcuffed fugitives and he needed to touch him and if Sherlock didn’t like it he could bloody well say so. But Sherlock didn’t pull away – on the contrary, he turned his hand over and gripped back, squeezing a little tighter than John was expecting.
“So, what’s Moriarty’s end game?” John asked into the darkness. He hadn’t opened his eyes.
“I don’t know.” Sherlock’s voice was calm and contemplative, and it was a masterful performance.
John knew it was a performance because silvery, toxic dread and frothing fear trumpeted across the bond. If Sherlock had been telling the truth, if he really didn’t know Moriarty’s end game, then there would have been some metallic excitement or something that showed how eager he was to figure it all out, but there was just fear. And dread.
“Liar,” John said wearily. “You’re frightened, so it must be bad.”
“How do you know that?” Sherlock snapped. No instant denial or scoffing – he must be really fraying at the edges.
“It’s what I do.”
“Yes, but how do you know?” Sherlock hissed. “How do you always know? With everyone?”
John shrugged and repeated himself. “It’s what I do.”
“It’s not exactly something I can explain.” Or felt prepared to, after Baskerville.
Sherlock exhaled harshly through his nose – not exactly a huff or a sigh, but certainly an expression of petulance.
“So…what’s going to happen?” John pressed.
Sherlock was silent for a disturbing amount of time. “It’s fine, John. It will all be…fine. You’ll be alright.”
That sounded far too final for John. “I don’t really care whether I’m alright or not.”
“I do,” Sherlock said.
John was having trouble recognising what Sherlock was feeling. It felt like toughened wood, fibrous and hardened by rough weather with streaks of tar-scented bitumen. He’d never felt anything like this from Sherlock before. Was it…resolve? Determination? They weren’t really emotions, but John didn’t know how else to describe it.
He was so wrapped up in trying to unpick what he was feeling from Sherlock that it took Sherlock stiffening beside him to make him realise that Kitty Reilly was approaching.
At least Sherlock finally picked the lock on their handcuffs, though John wondered why he’d left them on so long.
John was so involved in the argument with Kitty (and trying to somehow mitigate the sheer, sharp-varnish desperation that was hissing from Sherlock like steam) that he completely missed Moriarty’s approach. He felt it when Moriarty was right outside the flat, of course – that emptiness couldn’t be missed up close – but he only had enough time to tense and regret that Sherlock hadn’t kept the gun.
The door opened and Moriarty strode in, the very picture of the tired but devoted boyfriend. John stood there, feeling as though he were rooted to the ground, watching Moriarty babble and plead as though he were the innocent one, as though Sherlock was the one who should be in jail, and the force of his anger and indignation literally took his breath away. It washed out into the room like a tide of stinging light, and he dimly felt Kitty and Sherlock twitch with it but all his focus was on Moriarty and the sucking hole that ate those emotions as if they’d never been.
John stepped forward, gathered every scrap of fear and despair he could, dredging up memories of his worst nightmares and worst experiences and shoved it at Moriarty, hard. He tried to power it on the force of his hatred alone, and pushed more and more until it felt like he was dragging his guts out through his mouth. He pushed hard enough to send a dozen people running for cover.
And it didn’t work. The emptiness took everything – everything – and left John wavering on his feet, suddenly as tired as if he’d run twenty kilometres through the hot sun in full gear.
It didn’t work. It didn’t work, and John had no idea what he was supposed to do next.
And then Sherlock buggered off to do something important all on his own, but at least John got to rant at Mycroft.
Perhaps calling Sherlock a ‘machine’ was a bit of a low blow, especially when John could feel the evidence to the contrary, but he just wanted some kind of reaction from the man. Anything other than this low-level sadness and percolating guilt that had been gnawing at John through the bond, and he barely reacted to the news that Mrs. Hudson had been shot.
Of course, it was only when John saw Sherlock on the roof – his fear and distress and guilt and pain loud and bright as a beacon – that he realised why there’d been no reaction.
Sherlock must have known it wasn’t true. He’d known, and he’d let John go anyway.
Not for the first time, John reflected that this empathy thing would have been a lot more useful if it made it impossible to lie to him.
At first, he had no idea what was happening, and then Sherlock said it was his note and no, no, this had to be some kind of cruel joke. Sherlock couldn’t be talking about…
John pushed every single particle of joy and purpose, happiness and contentment and love (yes, love) – every positive emotion Sherlock had ever made him feel – through the bond, trying to give Sherlock a change of heart, trying to make him think twice.
It didn’t work.
John knew he was in shock. He didn’t fight the blanket that draped across his shoulders, didn’t acknowledge the paramedics that buzzed around him like midges, poking at the deep bruise on the side of his head.
It had to be the concussion. John’s brain had been rattled, that was why nothing made sense. A short trip to the hospital, and everything would get sorted out, and then he’d understand.
He’d seen Sherlock die.
But the bond was still there. It was crawling with guilt and fear and pain, but it was still there, as though it were echoing the last impressions he’d received from Sherlock. John wondered numbly if this was what it was like to have a phantom limb.
It was insane, it was crazy – John had finally snapped. Sherlock was dead (oh Christ, Sherlock was dead, dead and never coming back), and if his empathy was going to thrum with Sherlock’s feelings just before he’d suicided for the rest of his life, then John was going to ensure the rest of his life was very short. He had a gun, after all.
John closed his eyes and leaned against the frame of the ambulance – which the paramedics didn’t like and they started urging him to open his eyes. But John wouldn’t; he was looking inwards, looking at the bond and willing it to stop, to just stop, to shut up because Sherlock was dead and dead men didn’t feel emotions.
Unless he was feeling consistent proof of the afterlife, and at that thought John actually laughed. Laughed and laughed until there were tears in his eyes and streaming down his face. Laughed until he bent over and vomited on his shoes.
Fear and guilt surged through the bond, as if Sherlock had somehow seen John do that, and John shoved comfort and love at the link in a last-ditch attempt to get it to shut up, to wink out or do whatever it was supposed to do…
And the bond responded. The fear eased, and the guilt didn’t vanish but solidified somehow, like a bad decision made for the right reasons.
And then John knew.
Sherlock was alive.